Sam S. Kepfield
"It would look perfect right - there," Terry told me, his finger
pointing at the center of the spherical room.
"What would?" I asked. My stomach was still settling.
"Sputnik. Glass case, shielded, spotlight. Perfect."
"Sputnik - remember, old Russian satellite, started the Space Race, et
cetera? Hell, Jimmy, we need something to get the tourists in here.
Something that no other bar has -"
"Terry, you don't have competition for two hundred miles."
"And I wanna keep it that way. Gotta be something unique. What better?"
Terry Raines, President of Cosmodyne, Inc., was in one of those moods,
and with a few tens of billions of dollars to burn, you could either
enable him or say no and clean it up when he ignored you. I know.
I'm not a physicist, or an astronomer. Not even an engineer. Those guys
belong up here in orbit, running this mansion in the stars disguised as a
space station. Terry is the one who had the notion, five years ago, to
hijack an asteroid and insert it in Earth orbit, had all the numbers
worked out so that he wouldn't drop it into the middle of the Pacific
and cause an extinction event. Greg Wells designed the booster, quick
and simple, got it into space and parked 2009 BT in L4.
I'm James Patrick Grant, Esq. I'm the one who made it all legal. Or at
least palatable to the government[s], greased the skids and saved our
For that, my reward is a one-third split. Of everything. And everything
is quite a bit. 2009 BT was an average M-type asteroid, 2km in diameter
with about 3 billion tons of nickel-iron ore - about the world
production for three years. What we - I - did was to offer contracts and
leases. Mining rights to 3M and Alcoa. Merck and Bayer set up micro-G
pharmaceutical labs. Property leases to the Americans, the Russians, the
Japanese and the Brazilians for science stations. Most of the initial
first-year lease money was plowed right back into the operation, buying
and building the equipment to get to orbit and move around and live
Other nations and corporations were moving out into orbit and beyond -
with a little help. Terry said that Cosmodyne's role was like that of
the frontier sutlery, setting up shop in a opportune spot and selling to
all the westward-ho types passing by on the trail to riches or
Ore was processed in orbit, sold to corporations and nations alike,
fabricated into spacecraft which flew to the far points of the solar
system, which in turn were fueled and provisioned with water and
volatiles taken from the second asteroid we captured, a carbonaceous
chondrite three miles around. America was going back to the Moon. The
Japanese (dba Mitsubishi) were headed to Mars, neck-and-neck with the
Americans and the Chinese. The Russians were said to be thinking big,
leapfrogging Mars altogether and heading to the asteroid belt or
Jupiter. Not to mention the private ventures outward bound. And they
were all paying customers. Private enterprise was doing in five years
what governments had failed to do for decades.
I also cut a deal with the Hilton chain for a luxury resort - the
transportation problem solved itself with a year, Hilton joining with
Virgin Atlantic for a regular shuttle service. It wasn't quite the
gleaming white double-wheel and Pan Am spaceliner I thrilled to as a boy
when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it was good enough. Still,
it was a long way from competing with Vegas.
The bar we stood in was proof enough. Oh, sure, you could get a
screwdriver or a draft beer brewed on-site with ingredients from our
hydroponics farm, served up chilled in a souvenir bulb. The burgers and
hot wings were okay, if you didn't mind soy; the potatoes we grew
hydroponically. But there was no, pardon the old pun, atmosphere. A nice
big plexiglass port giving a panoramic view of Earth every hour as
Avalon spun on its axis. No neon signs, no pool tables, and definitely
no tobacco smoke. There was a jukebox, though, the only saving grace. It
needed more. It needed a gimmick.
"We can't get Sputnik," I told Terry the next day. We were in his
office/private hideout, which was a bubble on the top of a long tube
jutting from the surface of the asteroid. The top two-thirds of the
bubble was hardened plexiglass. It afforded one hell of a view. With the
lights off, you could lean back and imagine yourself out in space. It
gave Terry peace of mind. It gave me vertigo.
"Why not?" he asked.
Terry was wearing his normal garb - jeans, Hawaiian-print shirt, black
Cosmodyne ball cap. I had donned the more traditional blue coveralls, no
stray bits of clothing to float away in the negligible gravity.
"Why not?" Terry asked me again. "Hell, the Soviet Union went out of
business thirty years ago. If the Russian Federation couldn't object to
the ABM Treaty, they can't claim ownership of a metal basketball that
doesn't even work."
"Sputnik's orbit decayed and it re-entered on January 4, 1958. Burned
"Oh." He was momentarily crestfallen. "Sputnik II?" His face brightened.
I knew Terry, so I came prepared. "Nope. It came down in April '58."
Cremating poor Laika.
"Three burned up on re-entry in April 1960. Four came down in September
'62, over Manitowoc. Five was a research vehicle containing two dogs,
forty mice, two rats and some plants. Launched in August 1960, recovered
one day later. Six exploded during descent, killing Pchelk and Muska.
"Forget it," Terry waved his hand. "No one cares about number seven of
anything. Nuts. It was a great idea."
I hated myself for what I said next. If I'd kept quiet, the whole mess
might have been avoided. "There's still Vanguard."
Terry's ears perked up. "Vanguard? Hey, wait a minute. First American
satellite launched -"
"Second, actually. Explorer I was the first, but it burned up on
re-entry in March 1970. But Vanguard's still up there. And idle."
"Yeahhh," Terry said, staring out at space. He was in the middle of a
horseshoe-shaped console, blinking lights and glowing screens showing
him his little empire. He was getting that look again. "That would work.
They know where it is?"
"Sure. You can get it off the web in less than five clicks," I said
casually, and Terry bent over a keyboard, began clicking, thirty seconds
later he had the same screen I'd used. "Apogee 3969 km, perigee 654 km,
inclination 34 degree - hell, it'd be a piece of cake."
"Maybe," I conceded, knowing little of orbital mechanics. "But there's
still the problem of ownership."
"Phooey," he spat derisively. "It's gotta be the oldest bit of space
junk out there. Dead. Abandoned. I mean, sure, Uncle Sam had title when
it blasted off, but the last seventy-odd years. . .Uncle Sucker doesn't
miss the military hardware they burn up in Kurdistan or Malaysia every
year. What's a basketball-sized piece of junk ain't worked in seventy
years gonna matter?"
And that, as they say, was that.
As it turned out, Terry was right.
"Legally, we can do it," I told him two days later. I was back on terra
firma - well, on a deck, anyway, surrounded by thirty thousand acres of
the Kansas Flint Hills. I had built a house here, used the rest as a
wildlife refuge, creating a nice little tax dodge. I squinted into the
sunset, and in the distance saw a herd of buffalo I'd started a few
years ago. Fall was coming, they were grazing on bluestem grass to put
on fat for the winter. There was a chill in the air already.
"You're sure?" Terry's face filled the netphone screen. It was five
here, around midnight UT on Avalon, but Terry kept odd hours.
"Yeah. There is no law of salvage for space. The UN Committee on the
Development of Space has been kicking around a treaty the last three
"And it'll be years before they actually sign one."
I shrugged. "There's no need. The only reason to have a salvage law is
to create a solid legal environment where a person can claim abandoned
property as his own."
"Like Vanguard," Terry said.
"Right, but for what purpose? With the law of sea salvage, you let
entrepreneurs claim some sunken treasure ship, recovering historical
objects and making a huge profit in the process. Space commerce hasn't
reached the point where we have Spanish Galleons loaded with doubloons
riding the spaceways. No one has really thought to grab some of the
older satellites, mainly because most of the important ones like Sputnik
are gone, or not that meaningful. There might be some incentive to
clean up space junk, getting stuff out of orbit for a bounty fee from a
government -" I trailed off, another lucrative line of operations
forming a germ in my mind. "Or to snag some scrap metal for processing."
He laughed. "We solved that problem, didn't we?"
I had to agree, watching a hawk circle overhead, glancing at the coppery
harvest moon rising in the east.
"Anyhow," he continued, "I talked to Greg, and he tells me it should be a
cinch. All we gotta do is modify an OTV, put a remote arm on and
storage bin on it. And one thing, Jimmy. No publicity. None at all."
"S.O.P., Terry. I was the one that came up with it, remember?" On theory
that it was always easier to apologize than ask permission, always
better to present a fait accompli than a wild-eyed scheme, Cosmodyne,
Inc., had a strict no-news policy prior to an operation. It also
prevented a raft of bad news should one of our projects fail
spectacularly. "So we launch when?" I half-knew the answer.
"Two days," Terry said with a grin. "I told him to start after we
I sighed. It was typical Terry, impulsive and unstoppable once he had
his mind fixed on something. It had to do, I theorized, with his
upbringing, a child prodigy born to parents with sizable financial
resources, able to send him to private schools, humor his interest in
astronomy, give him everything he wanted; Terry had rarely heard the
word "no." It was why he was currently on his third marriage, why part
of his fortune had been paid out to two ex-wives, the second being the
biggest settlement in history after Paul McCartney's. Of course, he made
it all back in a year.
Greg, by contrast, was a farm-boy, used to fixing old equipment with
baling wire, also not one to take no for an answer, but aware that the
world and stars had limits. As an engineer, he was more level-headed,
could stand back take a deep breath. He was on his first and likely only
marriage, to a girl he'd met in college, and earthside he drove a
twenty-year old pickup.
It took three days for Greg's team to rig the equipment on the Orbital
Transfer Vehicle. The OTV was an ungainly contraption, a big box on a
metal framework, fuel tanks and thrusters welded onto the rear of the
framework. Greg's people attached a robotic arm to the front, waldoed to
the cabin. The cabin had one hatch and no airlock, forcing the crew of
three max to wear pressure suits for safety's sake.
They launched from Avalon into a low, slow orbit, waiting for Vanguard
to swing around and catch up. Calculations said they had about five
hours to wait for a basketball-sized hunk of metal. Terry was on Avalon,
which had become his refuge of late, from the world and its problems,
one of which was his current wife. Greg was also on Avalon, to supervise
the mods on the OTV. The maintenance guys on the rock could have done
it, with minimal instruction from Greg, but he had that hands-on itch
that all engineers get, the feeling that looking at blueprints all day
isn't enough, they have to get out and build, damn it, dig a hole, pour
some concrete, knock down an old-growth forest for a freeway, anything.
Greg was built for that - big and brawny, six-four, like a linebacker
for the Chiefs, blond hair brushed back from his leonine face falling
past his collar. I'd nicknamed him "Tarzan" years ago.
I watched it all from home. I read a lot of science fiction in my youth,
which is why Terry and Greg thought of me when they hatched their
little scheme years ago. But actual space travel left me in a cold
sweat. I could barely handle flying, and preferred to take a maglev or
just drive when I had to travel. Thanks to communications technology, I
could do almost everything from my house. I had a secured line to
Avalon, and Terry ran a live-feed through it. I puttered about the
house, went for a jog along a dirt road, and returned, toweling off my
face, as the clock read 00:21. The talk between the crew and Avalon
control was a big improvement on the old Apollo-era audio that was
garbled and interlaced with random beeps.
"Coming up on you, 1000 kilometers." Terry's voice. It was early
afternoon up there, so of course he'd be up and present at the Big
"Lidar locked on. Initiating correction burn." Picking up speed to match
Vanguard. "Visual on long-range." The screen image wobbled, and
enlarged, and there it was, a gleaming sphere with four spindly arms
protruding, tumbling lazily in its orbit. The image was still fuzzy, so
no details were clear, but it was intact, and that was all that Terry
cared about, wasn't it?
The chase and capture wasn't like Star Trek or Star Wars, no whoosing
sounds or mechanical noises as the arm extended and Vanguard drew
nearer. A series of small, minute bursts on the OTV's thrusters,
watching the arm extend upward, ready to hook the satellite. It was
fairly humdrum, unless you knew the complex forces at work, all laid out
by Isaac Newton centuries ago. After an hour, Avalon control announced
that Vanguard was now a mile above the OTV, speeds and courses had
This is where the pilot, a former Air Force major named Kate Garnett
who'd flown a couple of Shuttle missions just before they retired the
fleet, earned her pay. She put the OTV on manual, and began easing it
"upward" toward Vanguard - "up" being a relative term, since the
satellite was closer to Earth than the OTV. Closer and closer, the last
two hundred feet almost excruciatingly slow, the OTV moving at less than
a half a mile an hour, until only thirty feet separated the two craft.
The arm extended, swinging towards the small sphere. The three fingers
of the robotic hand gently closed around Vanguard, and a collective
release of breath followed by a raucous round of cheers went up in the
control room. The arm slow retracted, stowed the satellite in a padded
bay on the front of the OTV.
Terry made the announcement the next day. It was enough to make the top
stories in all the 24-hour networks. The shows replayed ancient
black-and-white stock footage of all those early launches, the rockets
getting a foot off the ground before falling back in a gout of flames,
and the Vanguard launch on March 17, 1958, that finally got the U.S. off
the starting blocks in the Space Race.
Reaction from the U.S. Government was muted. Vanguard had been
classified as "space junk" for so long that no one could argue with the
press release I drafted. I used all the right phrases - "salvage,"
"object of historical significance," "hazard to navigation" among them.
The President's press secretary gave a noncommittal answer at the daily
press briefing the next day, informing the world that she was pleased
that Cosmodyne, Inc. had performed a benevolent service to mankind by
retrieving this most unique object. Of course, when they found out that
it wasn't bound for the Smithsonian but a bar, their attitude soured.
Nonetheless, it was better than I'd hoped. I'd planned on at least one
angry denunciation from a Congresscritter, or some Third World UN types,
but nary a word. I suppose that people were more interested in what was
happening now, and the plans for the Moon and Mars, than a tiny
satellite that had quit working fifty years ago.
Terry was beaming the next time I saw him, a month later. He'd asked me
to come up and see Vanguard, and my curiosity overcame my
space-sickness, helped by a liberal dose of scopolamine. Terry allowed
me a day to adjust, and then showed off his - our - prize. Greg was also
We stared at it in awe. The metal was pitted and dull. A
basketball-sized metal orb was our gleaming ticket to the Space Age? It
seemed incredible. As we stood admiring it, Terry broke the silence.
"You know what we need now," he said in a voice that he tried to keep
spontaneous, but I could tell he was mouthing words he'd decided on long
"What?" we both asked warily.
Terry pointed over to the middle of the lobby. "I think a lunar rover
would look perfect right there."
Greg and I looked at each other, alarm in our eyes. This wasn't going to
be so easy.
With the Vanguard operation, tongues were loosened. When word leaked out
that we were planning to snag a lunar rover, the reaction was quite
different than what had accompanied the Vanguard operation. For some
unfathomable reason, recovering a moon buggy was a different matter.
It was a toss-up as to which one to recover. The Apollo 16 rover had
experienced some mechanical problems stemming from a broken fender. No
fender, moon dust got thrown up, covering the astronauts and getting in
the machinery, leading to battery problems overheating. Gene Cernan had
bumped the fender on the Apollo 17 rover. Cernan and Duke had rigged a
replacement with some EVA maps, clamps and duct tape - which brought a
broad smile to Greg's face. "True engineers," he beamed, having used
baling wire and duct tape on the farm more than once. The Apollo 15
rover was, as far as could be determined, still good. Like New, Only 17
Miles, One Owner! Greg had thought that the Apollo 17 rover would be
best, a tribute to human ingenuity in the most trying circumstances, but
Terry vetoed that. So Apollo 15 it would be.
If the underreaction to Vanguard had taken us by surprise, the
overreaction to the moon buggy operation was a stunner. NASA issued a
statement brimming with indignation. "It is outrageous that a piece of
scientific equipment that proved so crucial in early exploration of the
moon is now to be displayed as a bauble in a frontier watering-hole,"
the statement began. "NASA and the government of the United States have
never relinquished control or title over the craft left on the moon, and
consider the LRV, the Apollo Lunar Module Descent Stages, the Surveyor
craft, to be the sole property of the United States of America."
The White House provided a similar reaction. Ditto for assorted
Congresscritters. The news channels and sites were all over us, calling
us "pirates" at best. At worst, we were compared to the scum who had
looted King Tut's tomb and other priceless treasures. Gallup had the
public against us by two to one. The UN Committee on Outer Space was
said to be speeding up its work on the space salvage treaty, and most of
the major powers - Russia, China, Japan, Brazil, and the EU - were
urging speedy ratification.
Terry was undaunted. "Screw 'em," he said dismissively. "Not like I'm
planning to bring back the Eagle from Tranquility Base. Although -" and
he got a faraway look in his eyes.
"Stop it," I snapped at him. "We're in enough trouble as is."
"Then get us out of it," he said simply.
I tried NASA, but no one was taking my calls. Meetings, the apologetic
secretaries said. With Cosmodyne as the topic, no doubt.
The next day, I got a call from Jennifer Gillespie. We had gone to law
school together, dated for a year and then decided it wasn't going to
work because we had very different career goals. I was solidly in the
lower half of the middle third of our class, ended up doing early-bird
criminal docket calls and nasty divorces for a big Kansas City firm for
five years. Jennifer made Law Review, landed a prize clerkship with a
federal appellate judge after graduation, made connections and then
landed a job as an assistant counsel to the Senate Science and
Technology Committee, under the patronage of Senator Byron Morris (R -
I was making an appearance at Cosmodyne's offices in Wichita. Since Greg
had worked for Boeing before he signed on to our little venture, and I
was in Kansas City,
we'd decided to locate the offices here. Terry bitched about having to
move back here from Reston and NASA-Ames, but he'd grown up in Wichita,
so it was mostly show.
My office was on the tenth and top floor of the building we'd erected on
the north side of town. The nuts-and-bolts stuff went on in orbit. We
dealt with and generated the paper. Leases, subcontracts for equipment
and parts, Worker's comp, and more, all done in a hushed, shag-carpeted
teak-and-mahogany ambient lit atmosphere. Sometimes I missed meeting
with clients in orange jail jumpsuits smelling of BO and piss and puke.
One of the fashion-model receptionists we handsomely paid to be the
public face of Cosmodyne announced the call in her whispery come-hither
voice. I took it with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
"Jen," I greeted her. "You look good." No lie - Jen was slim, fit,
tanned, looked fifteen years younger than her age. No gray in that raven
hair yet. The blue eyes -
"Thank you, Jim." White teeth flashing; we had parted on good terms and
still were. "You've made quite a name for yourself in the last couple of
"Reckon I have," I replied smoothly. "Still wanna marry into money?"
"Sorry, sweetie. Give it a few years. I don't want you to be a rebound,"
she smiled sweetly, not at all sarcastic. Her first marriage had ended
five years ago. "I didn't call to talk dirty to you -"
"You're more than welcome to anytime -"
A sigh, a smile, rolled eyes. "I wanted to give you some information.
It's about Terry and his latest scheme. What in God's name is he
"You know Terry," I said. "He wants a moon buggy, no one's gonna tell
him no." Well, I would, but he wouldn't listen. Greg - Greg was too
caught up in the mechanics of proving it could be done. No help there.
"Well, there's some people here who aren't real happy about it. I've
seen the NASA chief here going in and out of offices. I also got word
that he was at the White House and the Pentagon yesterday."
"So he's mad we're gonna beat his agency back to the Moon." The fiftieth
anniversary of Apollo 11 had come and gone with no permanent U.S.
presence; like everything else, the timetable on Orion 15 had slipped.
Three years later, things looked like they might make it for the
She blew out an exasperated breath. "No, Jim, and you damned well know
it. It means that if you go ahead with this mission, you may very well
find yourselves in a lot of trouble. The kind that doesn't get served by
"I'm guessing that this information isn't cleared for distribution," I
replied evenly. Damn you, Terry, 'get us out of trouble' indeed -
"It's not hard info," she said. "Just the observations of one person."
Who was highly connected to a long-serving and powerful senator, tied
into the White House and Pentagon, with contacts all over, and no I
don't want to know how some of them became contacts, old lovers or
flames. If Jen was telling me this much, how much more was she holding
"I'm touched to know you still care," I told her seriously.
"I always did," she smiled. "I still do." She bit her lower lip. "I'll
give you a rain check on that dirty phone call." She winked and signed
off, and I sat back, my mind racing with visions of Space Marines and
raven hair and olive skin.
Two days later, I found out she was right.
I was on a call with Greg, who was still back on Avalon. He had been
working on a plan to retrieve the rover. Greg had at first thought that
we could modify an OTV, rig a winch and sling underneath, drop one or
two people down, slip the harness over the rover, and lift it up. I
asked about collateral damage, Greg gave me a blank look. "Collateral
damage - the OTV has to hover, right? It has to use thrusters to lift,
right?" An OTV has a dozen attitude control thrusters, small nozzles
that fire a LOX mix to control pitch and yaw. Greg nodded. "You'll be
hovering - what, twenty, thirty -"
"Right. Overhead. So what happens to the site when they fire? The
reaction kicks up a lot of dust. Not to mention you've got two
astronauts wandering around, hooking up the sling. It's going to deface
the site. And that means the preservationists will really go off the
deep end." He frowned, I put up my hands. "I'm trying to minimize the
fuss, is all. Orders."
Greg thought, and nodded. "Well, we can't drive it off. The batteries
are dead. And they're not rechargeable, so we can't use jumper cables.
Although that would be pretty cool, huh?"
I nodded. "So we get new batteries. How hard could it be?"
"Not very," Greg admitted. "The rovers used two 36-volt silver-zinc
potassium hydroxide batteries. Can't go to Sears for one, but I suppose
we could build some here. Or build something similar."
"And keep the originals," I added. "Historical preservation and all."
"Sure. Gimme a coupla days," Greg said eagerly, and signed off. I
sighed. Terry's whim to build a space museum for a bar was getting
One of my receptionists, the redhead this time, announced that I had a
visitor. I asked who, and she gave me a name and added, "He's from the
State Department." I groaned - my day was going to get worse, and it
wasn't even noon yet. I closed my eyes, tried to envision myself back
home, on my deck, fall colors and air around me, the afternoon sun
warming my face, buffalo grazing. . .
"Mr. Grant?" The voice was deep and unctuous, just what you'd expect
from a skid-greasing political appointee. I opened my eyes, and the
redhead was showing in a tall man, brush-cut hair and chiseled jaw,
Roman nose, in an impeccably tailored suit and silk tie - a budding
Secretary of State in training. He walked up to me, turned on a 100-watt
smile, extended his hand, displaying a Rolex. I stood and took the warm
and soft hand. "I'm Clark Hagerty, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy
and Public Affairs."
He waited, the smile frozen on his face, obviously waiting for me to
genuflect. I remained standing, gripping his hand harder, all those
summers on my uncle's wheat farm paying off. I didn't say anything, and
Hagerty began talking again haltingly. "I'm here about your company's
plans to retrieve U.S. Government property."
I let go, and motioned to the leather chair in front of my desk. "Sit
down. Why is the State Department in on this?"
"It's rather unusual," Hagerty said. "We're improvising here, like you
are. This situation has never arisen before."
"No one's had the capability before," I countered. "Get used to it.
Space is opening up."
"Er, yes, well that's the problem," Hagerty said, crossing his legs. "My
office is quite insistent that you cease and desist with your plans to
retrieve the Apollo 15 Lunar Rover."
"Our position is well-known, Mr. Hagerty. The Lunar Rover is abandoned
property, space junk, if you will, just like every inoperative satellite
in orbit, just like every spent booster, like every crashed or failed
probe. There's no law of salvage for space objects, so we're simply
applying the law of the sea." That's our story and we're sticking to it.
"Government-owned objects can be salvaged, if it is determined that
they are abandoned - it's called the law of finds. Under the Public
Vessels Act and the Brussels Convention of 1967, a salvage claim can be
made on abandoned U.S. property by an American national."
"I'm aware of all that," Hagerty said archly. "But there are a couple of
points about your argument over which there is disagreement. First, we
deny that the Apollo 15 rover or any of the other equipment was
'abandoned.' We have retained title to it for the past fifty years and
have reasserted our claim to it."
I snorted. "Your government had fifty years to follow up on Apollo. If
you hadn't thrown money into Vietnam, or the entitlement sinkhole, you
could have had a moonbase up and running by 2000, sending out
expeditions to retrieve Apollo artifacts or protect the sites. Hell,
your next mission isn't even scheduled to arrive for another three
years, and it's going to be at the north pole, hundreds of miles from
any of the Apollo sites. I don't think that shows ability, much less
intent, to retain ownership."
"Well, yes, Orion 15 has experienced some difficulties," Hagerty
admitted sheepishly, but then his face took on a calmer expression.
"That should not be seen as the full extent of American lunar missions,
though. It would be possible to equip and outfit a smaller expedition,
one with, shall we say, a more limited mission in mind."
His watery blue eyes caught mine and drilled into me, and it took a
second or two for me to catch on. The sonofabitch just threatened us -
'smaller expedition,' 'more limited mission,' Jen telling me NASA's head
honcho was visiting the Pentagon - they were sending a small military
force to stop us.
I'd been in enough hearings and trials and watched enough cases go south
in front of my eyes so that I kept my demeanor calm, nonchalant even.
"If you can launch a salvage mission of your own in time, that's your
"I wasn't speaking of a salvage mission, Mr. Grant." He stopped dead,
letting it sink in.
So it was a threat. Send in the Space Marines to intercept the OTV? Have
them land on Avalon, storming it like the shores of Tripoli? And if
we're going to go Rambo on this, Mr. Hagerty, how'd you like a mile-wide
rock dropped on your office? I let that slide.
"I don't believe we have anything more to discuss, Mr. Hagerty. Our
operation is going ahead, and that's final." I stood, and escorted him
to the door, fighting the urge to have security frog-march him to his
Hand shaking, heart fluttering, I called Terry, who was in an ebullient
mood. I relayed my conversation with Hagerty to him, and he exploded in a
burst of profanity. "I oughta drop this friggin' rock on him, the
bastard. What balls - come in and threaten me like that. The hell's he
gonna do, anyhow, send in the Marines?"
"Maybe," I said. "Whether any of their units have zero-gee training is
The more I thought about it, the more it looked like a bluff. I hadn't
heard anything about training military personnel in orbit - the ISS
barely had enough room for its science crew. Cosmodyne hadn't leased any
space to Uncle Sam for a barracks. If it wasn't manned, then it would
be unmanned, and that meant one thing - a missile with a warhead. But
would the feds shoot down a manned vehicle, kill the occupants, over a
salvage operation? They couldn't be that desperate. Could they?
Terry waved his hand. "Greg tells me we'll be ready to roll in a week,
maybe less. NASA doesn't have anything that's lunar-mission capable. No
way they can get a mission off in that short a window. Hell, if they
did, they'd be back on the Moon by now. Relax." He then began relaying
some of the details of the planned salvage mission to me.
What Greg was designing, and what Terry was demanding, was unbelievably
risky. NASA, ESA, not even the Chinese would have gone for strapping a
bunch of fuel and air tanks to a vehicle meant only for short trips in
orbit. The cabin would have minimal furnishings, two hammocks for three
crew, so they'd have to hot-rack. Three days out, three back, one to get
the LRV - the details were frightening, but Terry had found more than
enough volunteers for the mission. The crew would have the distinction
of being the first men on the moon since 1972, and a shot at the history
books was more than any astronaut could resist.
Towards that end, I'd had an idea that at the time seemed incredibly
crass, but later turned out to be a lifesaver. The first moon landing in
over fifty years would be a big deal, and everybody would want a piece
of it. I took an idea from Gus Grissom, who'd taken a roll of dimes on
his ill-fated Liberty Bell 7 flight back in the early 1960s (I'd seen
the craft on display when I was a kid, right after they'd winched it
from the bottom of the Pacific back in '99).
The mission launched from Avalon five days later. One hour later, Avalon
control detected a burn from high orbit, 25,000 miles above the earth. I
got the word at about four a.m., Terry's face appearing on the netphone
screen in my living room after the alarm had roused me from sleep.
"Terry," I said, yawning and staring out the large window at the Flint
Hills, "you've got to get on Central Standard Time if you want to do
"It's four a.m., I know," Terry said excitedly. "We launched the salvage
mission ninety minutes ago - flawless, by the way. An hour after that,
we detected a de-orbiting burn in high orbit, and the object began
trailing ours. We're not sure what it is." It might have been the early
hour, but my mind began running over the possibilities. High orbit,
something prepositioned - a killsat? I balked at that, then remembered
things from history - Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Myanmar, Castro, Allende,
Diem. There was no limit to the damage a government was willing to
inflict to protect a vital interest.
The screen tweeted, and then split. Greg's face appeared on the left
side. "Terry, I've got an ID on the UFO. It's an ASTRO unit, placed in
orbit in 2012 and deactivated in 2017." I furrowed my eyebrows, no idea
what Greg was talking about. "ASTRO means Autonomous Space Transport
Robotic Operations. A way to teleoperatively repair satellites in orbit,
freeing up manned missions. Boeing designed it for DARPA. I worked on
them when I was there years ago. It's not carrying a bomb, and it's
definitely not manned."
"So what's the game?" I asked.
Greg rubbed his chin. "ASTRO is designed to capture old satellites and
service them. I think this is the space equivalent of a Denver boot on
Terry exploded in a shower of profanity. "So, we either wait for it to
catch up, or we abort the mission now."
"How do we get away from it?" I asked calmly.
"I dunno if we can outrun it," Greg said. "This ain't no Dukes of
"Hack into the system and turn it off course?" I suggested.
"Maybe, but I'll bet whoever's piloting it - NASA, DoD - has thought of
that and put up some good firewalls."
We both sat there, staring at each other over thousands of miles of
vacuum, minds churning.
I had an idea. "Greg, can you figure out the exact vector for the ASTRO?
To within a few dozen meters?"
"This one's gonna cost us money, but we'll lose if we don't." As I
relayed my idea, Greg's face broke into a grin.
In the end, the Pack Rat made it to the Moon without further incident,
making a perfect orbital insertion. The news channels were all abuzz
with it, talking heads barking at one another, Ph.Ds and J.Ds offering
up their two cents' worth, all of it for nothing. I watched the
commotion on a big-screen TV in a large corner suite in the old
Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House. The
summons had come late last night, from an assistant to Hagerty. I let
the slight at being summoned by a stooge go. Since we had the upper hand
I could be gracious.
I entered the office to find Hagerty sitting behind a mahogany desk that
cost an acre of rainforest. Arrayed in the overstuffed leather chairs
in a semicircle were two more suits, a dark-haired intense fellow and a
blond ice queen sitting with her legs primly crossed, and a uniform -
more precisely, an Air Force uniform with two stars. Hagerty introduced
them as Roger Hillman from the Justice Department, Janet Carstairs from
NASA, and Gen. Thomas Twining.
"Maybe you can start by explaining just what your crew did to U.S.
Government property," Carstairs began frostily.
"Ms. Carstairs, maybe you can tell me what that ASTRO satellite was
doing chasing our ship."
She was nonplussed, even looked prepared for it. "We're stopping a theft
of government property. Now, what happened to the ASTRO? We lost
telemetry hours ago."
"Collision with some space junk, I presume. Micrometeroid. I don't know.
The Pack Rat doesn't have any weapons on board," I shrugged. It did
have a few thousand assorted pennies, dimes, and quarters, from the till
at the Vanguard Lounge, launched at the ASTRO with a booster improvised
from a fire extinguisher.
"You're about to take government property," she insisted.
"Bah," I dismissed it with a wave of the hand. "You haven't done a thing
to keep title in fifty years. It's ours, we're bringing it back."
"If you do," Hillman piped up in a high voice, "you'll be prosecuted for
misappropriation of government property under 18 U.S.C., section 641.
It's a fine of up to one hundred thousand dollars, up to ten years in
prison, or both." For everyone involved - the crew for starters, Terry
for having the idea, Greg and me for aiding and abetting.
"That's a bit harsh," I said coolly.
"Not at all," Hillman shot back, smugly. "We're trying to discourage
what we believe will be a trend, people pilfering government property
simply because they can. And save your little arguments on salvage
rights or abandonment for the jury."
There was a TV in Hagerty's office. "Mind?" I asked, got up and switched
it on. It was already tuned to CNN, running live feeds from the Pack
Rat, which was thirty seconds from touchdown. The HD picture beat the
early Apollo vids by a mile; in the distance the Apollo 15 landing site
"It's gonna be a moot point in about ten minutes," I said. "It seems our
problem is that we don't have a clear idea what the law is," I began.
"I'm fairly confident my salvage defense would work - I've done the
research" (my associates had, actually, but it looked iron-clad). "But,
further entanglement with the federal government does present problems.
Namely, overhead. You have unlimited resources, and we can't run up
legal bills to fight this forever. So I have a proposal."
I spent the next half hour outlining it, and at the end, everyone seemed
pleased. By the time the Pack Rat set down on the surface, the
reactions ranged from smiles to grudging acceptance. At least the
threats of federal prosecution had ceased.
The Pack Rat set down a half mile from the Apollo 15 site near Hadley
Rille. Dave Scott and Jim Irwin had used the Rover on three EVAs,
eighteen hours over three days, covering about 17 miles. They'd taken
samples, including the Genesis Rock, 4 billion years old, one of the
oldest samples known. The cameras from the Pack Rat showed the Falcon in
the distance, sitting at a slight lean on the plain, the Rover in the
foreground. After the third EVA, Scott drove the Rover about a hundred
meters from the LM and pointed the camera towards the LM to record the
takeoff from the surface. The distance, which meant no damage to the
actual landing site, had been a plus.
Ed Gutierrez and Jenny Moran lugged the batteries that Greg had rigged
up. It took an hour to change the batteries out. Moran took the Bible
Scott had left on the hand controller, put it in a small pressurized
bag, and walked another twenty meters to deposit the Bible beside the
Fallen Astronaut plaque and statute. The Rover fired up, and Gutierrez
piloted it back to the Pack Rat. Greg had welded a Tommy Lift-style
platform onto the front of the OTV, and another hour was spent parking
and securing the Rover.
The third member of the crew, Ken Dubinsky, took some photos of the site
and the operation. He also began collecting samples of rocks, placing
them in metal boxes, taking a small shovel and filling three
medium-sized bags with moondust. We'd lost out on the commemorative
coins, so the price for a rock or moondust would have to be upped a bit.
Environmentalists and other lefties might moan (how they could do this
over a dead, airless world was beyond me), and science types would gnash
their teeth at the prospect of precious geological samples being sold
on the open market - but they were free to pony up. Besides, I had a
feeling that there would be plenty more opportunities in the near
future. We broke the long absence and now everyone else had to go back.
Pack Rat touched down on Avalon, moon buggy stowed safely, three days
later. Gutierrez, Moran and Dubinsky were grateful - they'd had to dump
the atmosphere to fire the shotgun, and spent the rest of the time in
their suits. While they did countless media appearances (taking the heat
off me and Terry for a while), Greg got down to unloading the cargo.
I'd made a special trip to Avalon for the return. Because, well, I hate
to admit it, but seeing a lunar rover was too good to resist.
The look on Terry's face as he ran his fingers over the pitted, faded
paint was that of a kid on Christmas morning. Greg opined that it was in
good shape for being in a harsh environment for four decades.
Terry put it in the bar, of course, in a specially sealed case, with an
inch-thick bed of moon dust on the bottom. It proved to be quite a draw.
Curiosity seekers from other stations made the trip, and they bought
drinks in the process (in souvenir cups, of course). And they usually
bought a T-shirt or hat, framed eight-by-tens. The moon dust went like
hotcakes at $99.95 a gram. Real moon rocks went for $249.99 an ounce,
and sold out in a day on a website we set up. So, of course, we had to
do another mission just for dust and rocks, near Tycho crater.
Pushed by events, the UN finally drafted a treaty dealing with space
salvage rights. All items were declared salvageable, unless signatory
nations placed an object on the register, which the U.S. promptly did
with most of its satellites and all of its lunar missions, Mars
missions, and even the Pioneer and Voyager probes. The older, inactive
commercial satellites were left off. There's a good fee to be made
retrieving and returning them - and guess who's got the jump on the
competition on that one.
The Apollo and Surveyor lunar sites were declared National Historic
sites. My idea for contracting out the Park Service duties was buried.
The Interior Department wasn't about to trust us with the job, given
that we'd taken one of the potential attractions for ourselves, salvage
or not. They did start some special training for Park Rangers in zero-
and low-gee, though, and the first bunch will be ready shortly. The
first duty station off-planet's going to be the Tranquility Base Park.
Our effort wasn't a complete loss, though. Cosmodyne won the bid to put
up the protective shell around the Apollo 11 site. We've also set up a
shuttle service, running twice a month to the moon, hauling tourists,
and Greg expects we can get the fleet of six up and running by the end
of the year. The tourists will especially enjoy the layover at Avalon
for a few days while they acclimate to zero-g. I hear they're already
Terry's response to all this was typical. "How much," he asked me, as we
again admired the moon buggy a few days ago, "ya think the Russians
would take for one of their old Mars landers?"